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The International Writers Magazine: From Nice to Naples

Travel Pleasures of a couchsurfer
Robert Cottingham
Before I went away this year I read John Steinbeck’s 'Travels with Charley', about the trip he embarked in a camper van with his dog, in search of the real America. Now, I’m no Steinbeck, but I always try to meet people on my travels, and I’m always looking for real experiences too. My aim is to build up as memories as I can so that I can look back over the time I spent away fondly and remind  myself of when I was really enjoying myself. I took some photos, although I’m always wary of seeming the typical tourist, I mean who wants that?


There’s always the dilemna of what take with you on holiday. Invariably we take too many clothes with us, and not enough of the really important stuff. Like money. I packed two shirts, some t-shirts, underwear, a jumper, and some books. I also packed some toiletries, most of which I left in the various hostel bathrooms I stayed in during my trip. I didn’t take my laptop (to heavy, and too liable to get broken or stolen) or anything to listen to music on. I took one book with me, ‘The Worst Journey in the World', the account of the doomed expedition to the South Pole in which half of the explorers perished before they reached the pole. I figured if things weren’t going to well on my travels I could read about some truly terrible things, starvation and lack of women. In the end the book turned out to be the opposite of unputdownable. I could hardly read more than a couple of pages. Not that I’ve ever been to the Antarctic, but I’m sure that after awhile all those icebergs look the same.  I should really have taken something like an airport novel to read on the beach.

I took a flight from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Nice which arrived at 5:30. One of the things I always hate about getting to an airport in a foreign country is you don’t know where you are or where to go, but you want to get out of there fast. It’s a real pain in the ass. Luckily Nice airport is only a few miles from the centre of town and there’s a bus that goes right to the tram stop in the old town. But they don’t design buses with backpackers in mind, so you end uo standing up most of the journey and knocking people out as you turn round. Also people have an annoying habit of standing right by the door so you have to push past them everytime you want to get on and off.

Nice has two main forms of transport, the bus and the tram. Unfortunately there’s only one tram line going in two directions, hardly enough for a city like Nice. Also the French insist on taking their children with them everywhere, and their dogs. You should buy a ticket before boarding and then validate it when boarding, which I did some of the time, or I’d buy a ticket and then keep it and validate it another journey. That was a game I played to keep things interesting. They’ve also just installed the velo bikes down there, and you see them at stations all through the town.

Saleya One of Nice’s main areas at night is Vieux Nice – Old Nice.  It’s a  tangled thoroughfare of narrow streets and alleyways, ochre painted buildings like in Van Gogh’s. It could be really fun, if it weren’t full of cheap, shoddily produced tat, and the people selling such tat. Also it smells, doesn’t seem to ever get cleaned. Down by harbour there’s a market selling flowers, fruit and meat. Mostly all the fruit I tried was excellent, the peaches and nectarines perfectly ripened and ready to eat.

I bought croissants and pastries from the boulangeries, but they weren’t any better than what you can get in London. This caused me some consternation. It's always hard when you have expectations of some things and they’re not met. I had to accept that the croissants were just average, in the end that was all they were, and none of them  ever stood out as being remarkable. On what then does France’s gastronomic tradition rest on? It's mainly to do with the climate, ideally suited for growing soft fruits, olives, garlic. Also the abundance of herbs, lavender and pepper. And the cured meats that they do so well. Having said that I never felt that I was in a country where people cared that much about food. And as for innovation, forget it, although France has in the past produced some great chefs the list of gems going from Escoffier to Nico Landennis and Pierre Gagnaire. But the link France has with food is all about being close to the land, the terroir.

I didn’t eat  out  that much in Nice. The risk of getting a dud meal was just too high. And added to that I don’t think  I’d have the confidence to send a back in France, though I do regularly in London.

As for drinking, its just not done right. Somehow they can’t get their heads round it. Here’s what happens  in England: you walk in up to the bar, push your way to the front of the bar. You tell the bar man what you want and he gives it to you and then you pay him. Works everytime. I don’t know why but in France you have to sit down before you order and have a conversation, then someone else brings you your drink, it can take 20 minutes, it’s a disaster. I didn’t drink beer in Nice, not at 5 euros a pint. Mainly I stuck to rosé from provence, justly famous and good value.

There’s a particularly good gelato place called Fenocchio that does some incredible gelato,  200 flavours. That’s another thing that the French do well.

Socca, a flatbread made from crushed chickpeas, is another speciality. You can buy it from vendors on the streets. 

For the first two nights in Nice I stayed in the flat of Annelise, someone I contacted on the travel website Couchsurfing. Staying in the house of someone you’ve only just met can feel awkward and strange, but I’m no stranger to feeling awkward.  Annelise has to go to the airport to meet her Aunt who is also staying there. That leaves me to explore Nice with Florian who is also living there. We explore the old town, walk past the harbour near, past the war memorial and the castle. Nice is crowded, hot full of tourists. But hey, that’s why I’m there,  and of course also for the beautiful beaches of which the Cote d’azur has in plentitide.

But there is only so much time you can spend lounging around the beach pretending to read books. I tend to lose interest in things very quickly, it’s the same with places. I was in Nice for five days, at which point I’d had enough. Luckily I had some ideas up my sleeve on what to do next. I’d been in contact with someone on the couchsurfing website who said I could stay with him for a couple of days. Gianni, who lives in Trieste, was able to meet me at the station. I spent a whole day travelng from Nice to Trieste. Firstly I went from Nice to Monaco. From there I had to wait for another train to take me to Ventimiglia, only 15 kms from Nice, but in Italy.  Coming into a different country by train is always exciting, even when the landscape doesn’t alter dramatically. You notice changes straight away, like the signs, place names, and of course the language being spoken.

I waited for a few hours in Ventimiglia, drinking espressos and watching people on the streets.  I got onto a packed train to Milan that was full of locals going home from the beach. In France and Italy they have several different categories of trains. The EC trains are the quickest, and also the most expensive. As a result, almost everyone crowds into the regional trains, which are the slowest and cheapest. The problem with that is some customers have reserved their seats, but the seats aren’t marked. It meant that I was constantly told I was sitting in someone’s seat. I had to move five times in the journey before I finally found a seat which hadn't been booked.

I got an intercity train at Milan. Even with my three-journery Eurail pass, I still had to pay a supplement of 17 euros, although it would have been 10 if I hadn’t bought it on the train.

I got off at Venice Mestre station. I had another half hour wait, before I got on the train to Malfalcone. At which point, I was very near to falling asleep. Luckily I was getting off at the last stop anyway.  By which point it was just me and some old guy falling asleep, we then slumpled off the train and onto a bus (nice to know the Italians aren’t spared that inconvenience). Finally I get to Trieste at about half one. I meet Gianni, who really doesn’t look much like in his couchsurfing photo. That’s the wonder of couchsurfing. What other website would suggest staying with someone you’ve only just met, in a foreign country?

Gianni tells me that his experience in couchsurfing is limited to hosting. He doesn’t use it to stay on other people’s couches. I suppose he enjoys meeting people and couchsurfing is a good way of doing that. I’m sure he also uses it for romantic purposes as well. Which I have not yet done, but the opportunity of  which thrills me to no end. To meet someone, stay at their house for free and then sleep with them is pretty much the ultimate holiday.

Trieste by the way is a lovely, turn of the century city with balustrades and opera houses and the best cafes you’ve never been to. It's not featured in the Lonely Planet Guide, that should not surprise us, as they seem to only care about which cities offer to give travelers the most for their budget. Suggestion for Lonely Planet: why not just write travel guides to all the horrible places that no one wants to go to? Sell them to Americans looking for an ironic communist holiday.

I believe that there are some people who know how to look after guests and some who do not, this is not surprising. Here are my tips for making sure that whoever comes to stay is made to feel properly comfortable. No 1, bedding. It's ok to offer guests a sofa bed, they can be quite relaxing. But they must be scrupulously clean, and can’t have any food stains, porn mags under the cushions. It's just as important to offer good bedding, sheets, duvet and extra pillows if required.

No 2 is breakfast. There are two things you should offer people at breakfast. 1 is coffee, ideally freshly brewed. 2 is eggs. Yet so many seem to mess it up that they clearly have no idea. It's not ok to give people yougurt, cereals or toast. Really it isn’t. They are for people who put convenience before taste. Gianni gave me Illy coffee and scrambled eggs. Also fresh pastries, though I wouldn’t expect that everywhere.

No 3: if you’re staying with someone, it should be understood by both parties that they should do things that you find interesting and enjoy. I do not want to spend hours looking at supposedly hilarious youtube clips.  I can’t work up much enthusiam for your holiday photos. You’ve got your aunt coming to visit? Great, next time I’ll make sure I’m in a different country. What I’m saying is, the most successful couchsurfing experiences are when guest and host can bond over something mutually interesting. A glass of wine, a film, or a stimulating conversation about philosophy.

Finally, its very annoying when you have to go out to work and you don’t give your guests a key. Seriously, I’m supposed to get up at 8am and wander the streets till 6 when you get home from work?
No, no, no!

But I digress. Trieste is pretty, but when I reach Venice I have to rethink my appreciation. There is no other city like Venice, its charms are truly its own. See Venice and die, is about right. I mean, I’m not planning on going soon, but after you’ve been to Venice you feel a sense of having travelled as far as you can go.

For film fans, Venice will be familiar, first for the setting of Visconti’s Death In Venice, and then later in the same decade Moonraker. Don’t look Now was also filmed there. Things which everyone sees in Venice: the piazzo San Marco, and the Rialto. Both of which are incomparable, more beautiful than words can say.
Death in Venice

How about a stroll along the canal, or better still a ride in a gondola, painted black because they were once used to transport victims of the Black Death. Just being in Venice though is something magical, an experience to lift the soul.

After Venice, Rome, a city which I’m not as crazy about.  In fact I would go as far to say that Rome sucks as a city and doesn’t at all deserve its reputation. You could watch a video of highlights of Rome. It would take about 15 minutes and you wouldn’t trip over tourists and pigeons.

The city where English ladies travelled with their aunts in Forster novels. And one of the main points of the Grand Tour of Europe, mentioned in Henry James novels. There used to be a coin in English currency called a Florence. Santa Croce, the Uffizi arcade, Michelangelo’s David are the high points of Florin. It's all about the Renaissance then, after which it was all downhill for them.

Naples Where I finish my travels. The south of Italy. Home of Neopolitan, the ice cream flavour. Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, which is your favourite? Naples was the city I was most worked up about, the most  nervous to get to. Venice was a picture, Rome was dead and buried, Florence went to bed at ten. But Naples? I’d heard about Naples. Nothing specific, but it sounded ominous, people went there to do bad things. The home of the Cosa Nostra. 

Suffice to say, I was comforted, treated as one of Naples’ sons: wrapped snugly in the beefy arms of its big Fellini mommas. In fact I felt most at home in Naples. I went swimming in the Bay. I ate pizza looking out over the harbour, watching the sunlit shadows on the spotless sea. I splashed out on a 10 euro drink at the most expensive café. After which, I expected Dean Martin to waltz through the door singing That’s Amore. Even he had, the experience could not have been more perfect.

Returning Home
The worst part of holidays is when you get there, it’s the most stressful part because you have all kinds of expectations and no idea whether they will be fulfilled. Appropriately, its much nicer to come back home, with a suitcase full of clothes and souvenirs, and far more importantly the memories.

Some wise man once said you haven’t been on a journey if you don’t go back to where you started from.  There maybe some truth there. After all, if your destination is some where different to where you came from, you haven’t been on a journey, you’ve relocated.
I hope your holidays were every bit as enjoyable as mine.
© Robert Cottingham Septembert 2010

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